Some episodes of South Park find the satirical eye of Trey Parker and Matt Stone aimed at an abstract concept. Other times, it’s pretty clear that they are going after one specific event or individual. “Butterballs” managed to do both at once, with slightly mixed results. I tend to prefer when the two aim big with their episodes, as those tend to have a greater shelf life and wider applicability above and beyond initial airing. Whereas the cultural firestorm around the movie Bully and the “Kony 2012” movement provided some of the show’s biggest laughs, what will linger the longest sat in the periphery.
The episode starts with Cartman waxing nostalgic about the days when music videos weren’t all about women showing off their “vajayjays.” Putting aside the fact that music videos are often harder to find than the Loch Ness Monster these days, it’s a very Cartman-esque rant, which leads into Butters’ first appearance. Poor Butters is sporting a black eye, and we learn that he’s just lost his lunch money for the third time that week. Stan wants Butters to stand up for himself, which earns Stan some respect from his classmates in the cafeteria. But Butters doesn’t want to be seen as a snitch (or an Anonymous Andy, either). Kyle suggests that Butters instead talk to his grandmother, who is visiting from out of town. The only problem? Butters’ grandmother is the bully in question.
Nearly everything surrounding Granny Stotch fell flat, unfortunately. There’s potentially some way to make a bullying grandmother funny, but after the initial shock lay simple repetition. Simply inserting the words of a teenage bully into an elderly lady doesn’t equal automatic comedy. Neither does making the head of Bucky Bailey’s Bully Buckers (an anti-bullying organization) a bully himself seem like particularly fertile comedic ground after the initial reveal of that irony. There are plenty of times in which applying the same joke like a sledgehammer repeatedly works in a comedy’s favor, but this assumes the joke is funny in the first place.
With Butters unable to confront his bully, Stan volunteers at a school assembly to make a video for Bucky Bailey’s Bully Buckers. The video turns into an anti-bullying lip dub, and it’s a show-stopping number even by South Park standards. We’ve probably all seen at least one of these lip dub videos by now, either on YouTube or even on The Office, and it turns out they are no less awesome when animated. Even better than seeing a cavalcade of South Park secondary and tertiary characters appear in the single “take”? Listening to the lyrics get increasing violent towards bullying itself, ending with the line, “Let’s all join together to make bullying kill itself!”
Kyle ends up leaving the video shoot in disgust, recognizing that Stan’s moral authority has turned him into a bit of a self-serving dick. Here, the subtle jabs at the Weinstein Company’s fight with the MPAA over the rating for the film Bully turn explicit. A movie studio hears about Stan’s video and ultimately helps him turn Butters not into a brave heroic figure but rather someone exploited in the public as well as private spheres. One of the strongest aspects of “Butterballs” came from its observations about those in power often harming those they swear to protect. Sometimes they do so unwillingly. Sometimes they do so unconsciously. Other times, they are… well, self-serving dicks. Stan’s initial impulse is morally correct, but it soon gets lost along the way. (It’s probably right around the time a Madonna-esque Cartman lipdubs about his vagina.) Parker/Stone are less interesting in the initial reasons for public displays of altruism. Rather, they are concerned with the power dynamic between a social evangelist and the subject he or she hurts in the process of trying to help.
That’s a much stronger and richer ore to mine than Granny Stotch dressing up like a cross between a dominatrix and Galactus in order to psychologically destroy Butters/Professor Chaos. Things like Bully and Jason Russell’s meltdown after the release of Invisible Children’s “Kony 2012” will fade away from the public mind in due time, probably even sooner than we’d like to admit. That puts an expiration date on several specifics in this episode, which is unfortunate but inevitable for a show that turns around each episode in the six days prior to initial air. Still, bullying in and of itself probably isn’t going away any time soon. But seemingly more important to Parker/Stone is that crass exploitation under the guise of benevolent, selfless, and humanitarian acts will last even longer. That is their true target tonight.
On top of all that, having Butters snap under all the pressure and straight up beat the shit out of Dr. Oz not only functions as wish fulfillment for the masses but also an act of cathartic insight for him. Sure, his speech to his grandmother is a bit corny… but it’s also one of the more brutal verbal takedowns I can remember him delivering. What’s great is that you’re never quite sure how much of his monologue is intentionally spiteful, and how much just comes off as innocent naiveté that unintentionally cuts her to the quick. Sometimes, Butters even seems to surprise himself by what comes out of his mouth.
Still, intent doesn’t really matter here: What’s important is that Butters achieves some peace by episode’s end, even if Stan has to pay his penance by masturbating along the streets of San Diego. (“Take a load off!” implores the city’s mayor.) Gaining insight into the psychology of bullying illuminates its appeal for Butters. But rather than perpetuating the crime and paying it forward, he instead forgives the perpetrator and returns to his normal life. What else would you expect from someone who refuses to be a Cliché Confliction Resolution Kevin?
- Even if the parade of scenes involving one person locking another in the boys’ bathroom got old, I always appreciate it when Jesus shows up on the show. I’m old school that way, I suppose.
- I hoped and prayed the show would overtly mention the Captain Kangaroo haircut at some point, since it was all I could think about while Bucky Bailey was onscreen.
- Of all the bullying techniques she employed, Granny Stotch’s version of “Gummi Bears” will be the one that haunts my dreams tonight.
- Stan Marsh’s credits on his anti-bullying video read like those for Louie.
- The most direct anti-Weinstein jab: Kyle challenging Stan to put his supposedly important message on the web for free and bypass the movie industry entirely. I thought we might actually see Stan’s head explode trying to process that request.
- “Someday you’re gonna die. Someday pretty soon.” Cold as ice, Butters.